Talar Kazanjian:

Talar Kazanjian:

“We want to create a real community of female leaders”

AGBU is one of the oldest Armenian organizations with activities that impact lives of Armenians in the homeland and in different parts of the world. We spoke with AGBU Armenia Executive Director Talar Kazanjian to find out what the organization does for empowerment of Armenian women.

 

Interview : Karine Ghazaryan   
Photo : AGBU archive

 

Ms Kazanjian, AGBU had a female president in a very difficult period for the country. Could you tell a bit about the role of women in the organization?

— For all 112 years of its existence AGBU has accompanied and mirrored the life of the Armenian Diaspora. And it has always valued each individual’s contribution to the improvement of the Armenian society, irrespective of their age, location or gender. After the Armenian Genocide of 1915, it was one of the first organizations to establish orphanages and schools for women and girls. Therefore, AGBU’s focus on women has been very specific. We can even venture to say that it has had women’s empowerment and educational programs from the start. And, as you mentioned, we had a woman president during one of the toughest periods of modern Armenian history: Louise Manoogian Simone headed AGBU from 1989 to 2002. Under her leadership, AGBU was quick to react and send humanitarian aid after the Spitak earthquake, during the Karabakh movement and the first years of independence. There was not only humanitarian aid, but also other support: when a need came to create an institution that would teach Armenian youth to think in a Western mindset, and with Louise Manoogian Simone’s vision, AGBU became one of the first founders of American University of Armenia. Currently, there are five women on the Central Board, which is the highest global decision-making body of AGBU.

What do you think are the biggest challenges for women's empowerment in Armenia?

— In the last few years we have been trying to look at women’s issues a bit differently. If at a time it was all about humanitarian aid, these days we look at those in the framework of socio-economic development, where women’s empowerment is actually one of the keys to achieve success. And women’s empowerment, in my opinion, is never an end in itself. The ultimate goal is to build a healthy society that is able to explore all its potential and utilize it for the good of the nation and the country. This is the context in which AGBU started to look at women related issues in Armenia. Last year we also conducted a very thorough analysis of the topics and approaches of the international organizations, the government, as well as other organisations working with women in the regions. We wanted to have a more comprehensive framework to think about women, the needs and the challenges they face, thus determining the priority areas. We agreed that it is of crucial importance to raise awareness about domestic violence, abuse, sex-selective abortions because those are major social issues that our society faces today. By the way, when the draft law on domestic violence was being discussed, we were one of the few organizations to make a statement in support of it. We did this to show that AGBU does care about it, as domestic violence is not a local or internal issue, but it matters to the whole Armenian nation.

We also focus on raising awareness about parenting challenges since, as you know, there are numerous women whose husbands, being labour migrants, leave wives as basically single parents forced to take the full responsibility. These are all important challenges, but when you start to study them you realize these are results of root problems: lack of education, lack of information on what women can do in terms of employment and entrepreneurship, lack of financial means, lack of networking. These problems are what we build our programs around.

What kind of programs do you implement specifically?

— One of our initiatives, “Hye Geen” (“Armenian Women”), has been going on for about 16 years now. It was started by ABGU California – Western District. They gather donations on their local basis to send to the support centers for pregnant women that they have created in Vanadzor, Yeghvard, Talin, Yerevan and Charentsavan. Groups of women gather twice a week starting from their third month of pregnancy. They have trainings with experts: gynecologists, pediatricians, health nutritionists, specialists in judicial matters, etc. In a while, it turns into a self-support group, and they all become friends. At the end AGBU also provides them some financial support for the first few weeks of having the baby.

Alongside this, just last year we initiated AGBU W.E., a project which targets women entrepreneurs. With this we want to cover women across Armenia to give them training on how to establish their own business. This year we initiated our pilot project. We received about 60 applications for this program, from which we selected a group of 25 women who got trainings at the American University of Armenia on taxation, auditing, marketing and branding, on how to present ideas, create a proper business plan, etc.

The map of business ideas

How do you select participants?

— We asked women who had a business idea or already owned a small business to apply. Then we carefully conducted a selection process. We cooperated with AUA to design the training methodology having in mind women from the regions, and 75% of applications were not from Yerevan. We had all types of proposals, from agri-education center in Byurakan to a cave restaurant in Yeghegnadzor! At the end of the training course, all the participants competed in a pitch battle presenting their ideas in front of the jury. The jury selected four best ideas which got grants based on the potential and scalability of the proposal – from 500 000 to 800 000 drams.

I bet everybody were cheering on the cave restaurant.

— Well, it was a fantastic project. Manik, the woman who offered it, even did a drone shooting to give us the idea of what it could look like. Unfortunately, the resources needed for this extended our budget, but I know that Manik is now applying for another grant to build the restaurant. I have to mention that the most important part of our program starts after the pitch battle and it’s called “Handholding.” Armenia is a kind of place where you cannot just give a training and then let people go and struggle by themselves. You have to provide continuous help, and that is precisely what we want to do. After receiving the money, not only the finalists but also all participants go through incubation acceleration program to gain deeper understanding of the process of turning an idea into a successful business. At AGBU Armenia we have a monitoring and evaluation expert who interviews every participant to learn what their needs are. And once we define these needs, we design individual development plans which will be the basis of each participant’s one-year handholding.

 

 

Participation rate by the regions

— In about three months another group of women will start their training. Moreover, we want to create a real community of female leaders with the help of these projects. We already told our participants they are not going to get rid of us any time soon! We want them to feel AGBU, to understand AGBU’s values of inclusiveness, excellence and respect for all. Moreover, we want them to be empowered to become strong women entrepreneurs who are able to bring real change to their communities.

 

Gayane Markosyan

Vanadzor Guesthouse

Vanadzor, Lori

“Vanadzor is a developing city. According to PM Karen Karapetyan’s Master Plan, the tourism potential of Vanadzor will soon be maximally utilized. Thus, in order to manage the upcoming flow of tourists and offer visitors a convenient and pleasant stay, I want to open a hostel.”

 

Irina Mkrtchyan

Freshness

Yervandashat village, Armavir

“Herbs are in high demand in Armenia. However, transporting herbs, keeping them fresh and growing them throughout the year is not an easy task. Our customers – the residents of border villages – will be given the opportunity to always have fresh herbs with a late expiration date which we will achieve by offering those herbs in pots, i.e. with roots.”

 

Hripsime Petrosyan

Poultry Farm

Krashen village, Shirak

“In Krashen village, people have to cross a long distance to Gyumri, the regional center, simply to buy eggs and chicken. In order to save their time and money, and also create a few new jobs, I want to establish a poultry farm. An important consideration in the project is that 10 poor families will become shareholders in the farm.”

 

Anik Asatryan

Arpi Dried Fruits Production

Zangakatun village, Ararat

“As a Zangakatun village resident, I sense its issues and see the existing potential for the village to blossom. In Zangakatun, agriculture is not developing and the distance between the village and Yerevan creates additional obstacles for villagers to sell their harvest. In order to solve this problem and raise the quality of life of my fellow villagers, I have decided to establish a dried fruit production unit.”

 

Tatevik Manukyan

Coordinator

AGBU Women’s Empowerment Program

After this first pilot project of AGBU Women Entrepreneurs program, it became clear that the program will be continuous. Of course, we will now work on making the process more effective. For example, the pilot showed that 20 hours of training is not enough for women without any business background to absorb all the information, so we will extend the course.

I want to mention that not only the finalists but all the participant will continue to receive support from us. During the one-year Handholding we will bring them expertise, introduce new skills, provide training. We want to show that not only financial aid matters: the real empowerment should be all-around.